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Topical Questions

Volume 486: debated on Thursday 22 January 2009

The Department of Energy and Climate Change is committed to working to ensure security for Britain. During the past few weeks, we have been working with our EU partners to resolve the dispute over the gas supply between Russia and Ukraine, which has led to states of emergency in some European countries. The end of the dispute earlier this week was welcome and overdue. It is essential that the EU now takes effective steps in the European strategic energy review to improve energy resilience, and it is always important that we remain vigilant in ensuring UK security of supply by working with National Grid and Ofgem.

Residents living in fuel poverty in my constituency often do not have a bank account, so do not have access to the cheapest energy tariffs. Will the Secretary of State consider instructing energy companies to state on their bills whether customers are on the cheapest tariff and, if not, how much they would save if they were, and, more important, how they can gain access to that tariff?

The hon. Gentleman has suggested an ingenious idea, which we will consider. Ofgem has said that it needs to provide better information for customers, and the House will agree with his point about people who do not have access to bank accounts. It is important that Ofgem is proposing changes in the law and licence conditions to prevent unfair discrimination, but I agree that better information is also important for those customers.

T2. May I ask about the miners’ compensation scheme? I speak with some passion as the son of a coal miner. Is it appropriate that almost half the money set aside for that scheme has gone into the pockets of lawyers, some of whom are detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure? Will he ensure that the money is properly directed? (250003)

I have considerable concern about that—my constituency is also a mining one—and some of my constituents have been faced with solicitors who have claimed money not only from them but from the previous Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. That is a matter of considerable concern. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal recently made some decisions that I welcome, but a lot more needs to be done to ensure that we get to the bottom of what seems to be a scandal of considerable proportions.

T3. What assessment has the Minister made of the 10 per cent. reduction in fuel charges announced today for standard tariff payers, which will result in a £100 reduction for prompt payment, whereas those on prepayment meters, as of December, will get only £22 off their bills, yet again widening the inequity between the two tariffs? (250005)

We welcome the decision of British Gas to bring down its prices. We met British Gas on Monday, and gave it a clear message. It has now written to me saying that it has accepted that message and has responded. We now want the other energy companies to get the message that wholesale prices are going down and we want prices to follow. We also welcome Ofgem’s work in its probe to ensure that unfair pricing with prepayment meters is dealt with. We have made it very clear that if the matter is not dealt with by Ofgem and the energy companies, we will legislate to do so.

T6. Does my hon. Friend realise that if only 0.5 per cent. of the upland, peat land and coastal marshes were taken out of operation and used for construction or any other purpose, it would totally negate any efforts to meet our carbon reduction targets for 2050? Will we preserve those areas? (250008)

We certainly want to ensure that each decision on a development is taken after a full and proper assessment of the environmental impact. Therefore, we have to ensure that we recognise areas of particular sensitivity and the importance of the need to preserve them, while balancing that with the need to ensure the proper development of renewables for the long-term safeguarding not only of our country but of the planet.

T4. The Government are committed to renewable energy sources and to some stringent requirements under the EU landfill directive, which they are currently on course to breach. Will the Minister therefore look at renewable energy sources such as energy from waste, combined heat and power, and anaerobic digestion? Otherwise, we will have to pay fines for not meeting the landfill targets, and that would be very unfair. (250006)

The Government are committed to ensuring that we do not pay fines under the landfill directive, and that has been the whole purpose of the major programme to provide more infrastructure, including £10 million for anaerobic digestion and £2 billion of private finance initiative credits to develop new ways of dealing with waste, some of which can of course include the production of energy and heat.

The Government have set environmental targets that must be met before expansion at Heathrow can go ahead. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those targets must be independently assessed, enforceable and legally binding if we are to restore public confidence?

I do agree with my hon. Friend, and that is why we have referred the question of the new target, and how we can best implement it, to the Committee on Climate Change, the independent experts. It is a significant target and I hope that Opposition Front Benchers—especially given their past writings—will look at that target. We are the first Government in the world to set such a target, and I agree that it must be enforceable, and enforced.

T5. Thousands of jobs in north Wales and elsewhere are dependent on electricity generated by the Wylfa nuclear power plant in north Wales, especially at the aluminium smelter on Anglesey, which is a supplier to one of the largest employers in my constituency. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has recently rejected commercial proposals to extend the safe operating life of that power plant. Will the Secretary of State now work with the Business Secretary to seek the reversal of that decision and protect jobs at this difficult time for the local economy? (250007)

The answer to that is yes. This week I met the local authority involved to discuss some of the issues. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is seeking to find out whether the NDA and Anglesey Aluminium—and Rio Tinto, which owns the latter—are prepared to negotiate a deal. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the issue is not only price, although that is a key factor, but what will happen when Wylfa goes and whether there is an alternative energy source available in the long term. It is a complex negotiation, but we are certainly anxious to resolve it and save the jobs involved.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many people have been put into fuel poverty because the energy companies have increased their prices so hugely and have made immoral profits? The best and quickest way to take people out of fuel poverty is to reduce the price of electricity and gas alike.

My hon. Friend has been a doughty and effective campaigner on this issue. Let me put it this way: he is more right than wrong. We welcome the price reductions announced by Centrica this morning, and it is important that other companies follow suit. We need to see price reductions comparable to the price increases that we saw earlier this year. Wholesale gas and electricity prices are falling, and it is important that the benefit is fed through to customers.

Partnerships for Renewables is a rare British example of an initiative to promote the kind of community-based wind energy and renewable energy that has proved so popular in other countries and that might go some way to diffuse the opposition of local Conservative politicians. Why have the Government done so little to resource and promote Partnerships for Renewables, to the extent that most local authorities, agencies and Government Departments barely seem to know that it exists?

The hon. Gentleman often talks sense, and I think that he is talking sense on this occasion, too. We need to do more on Partnerships for Renewables. The public sector as a whole has not, in my view, risen to the challenge of building renewables sufficiently. There is more that we can do in local communities. The feed-in tariff will help in that regard, but I think that Partnerships for Renewables is a very important project. It needs to be promoted and the public sector needs to step up its game.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the raw fear in the steel sector of South Yorkshire and other manufacturing about the fact that the energy companies are not reducing prices for electricity to industry, when the price of oil has descended to a quarter of what it was six months ago? The Prime Minister is doing what it takes on banks—can the Secretary of State do what it takes on energy prices? If he cannot, will he understand that calls for the state ownership of our electricity companies will again come into play? We will not see manufacturing industry destroyed, as happened when the Opposition were last in power.

I certainly agree that we do not want to see the steel industry or other industries destroyed in the way that they were in the 1980s. However, we need to ensure that where energy prices are coming down and contracts are being negotiated—that is a key issue—those high energy consumers are able to get the best possible deals from the energy companies.

We welcome the fact that domestic energy supplier prices are coming down and the announcement from British Gas today, but we are also aware that wholesale prices are coming down. That will give some opportunities for large industrial users to negotiate better contracts. Some of them are tied into long-term contracts and that is part of the problem. New contracts will enable better prices, and I hope that that will help some of the highly intensive energy users.